UC Merced students promote their projects during Research Week

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comMarch 11, 2014 

— Research is taking center stage this week at UC Merced, with symposiums and presentations highlighting the work that many students are conducting on campus.

Monday saw a Sierra Nevada Research Institute symposium on California’s drought, and an event Tuesday gave about 70 students a chance to tout their own research. And there’s more to come through the week.

Portia Mira, a 25-year-old graduate student, stood in a gym on campus and told anyone who would listen about her more than three years of research into antibiotics people consume in food and water. She was part of a team of four.

The Merced native said she was excited to get to show people what she has spent so much time on, but “I’m doing it more for the experience of presenting my research to the general public,” she said.

Scientists have thought for some time that the amount of antibiotics used to kill bacteria, what’s called a “lethal dose,” is contributing most often to the bacteria evolving resistance to the agent. “What we’re finding now is it’s the sublethal concentration that contribute more to the antibiotic resistance,” Mira said.

Antibiotics are used so often to kill bacteria that they are found in water, crops and livestock. Some research, such as Mira’s, is showing that those smaller doses ingested by people are a bigger problem, she said.

Mira said she’s working to figure out how doctors can prescribe the best series of antibiotics to evolve resistant E. coli into more easily killed forms.

With some time and more work, Mira’s findings could be a part of how doctors regularly treat bacterial infections. Vice Chancellor for research Sam Traina said the bulk of fundamental breakthroughs in the U.S. are done at research universities, and that’s what makes what these students are doing so important.

“Most of what they are doing is a prelude to something in the future,” he said.

$152.9 million in grants

Health, engineering, computer science and other research could one day affect the everyday lives of people in the region.

For example, decades before lasers were used in Blu-ray DVD players, they were cutting-edge science at a research institution.

Every year, tens of millions of dollars go into research at UC Merced. Since 2003, $152.9 million in grants have paid for research, according to the school’s website.

Traina said Research Week is a reminder to undergraduates about the importance of the institution’s research. It’s also a way to let local folks see what’s going on at the school.

Other students on Tuesday gave presentations related to jet propulsion, body tissue, batteries and HIV, among other topics. While those topics may sound familiar, still other presentations, such as that of 20-year-old Robert Wang, were not for those uninitiated to science.

Wang, a junior from Fremont, has been working with another student for about 18 months to develop better measurements for computer programs used to study proteins, the building blocks of cells.

Ultimately, he said, he wants to figure out a better way for scientists to study irregular proteins, which act in a less predictable manner than their counterparts. “Ideally, this is going to help other scientists analyze their data better,” Wang said. “(They’ll) hopefully perform better at providing meaningful information about these proteins.”

More symposiums and events are planned for today, Thursday and Friday on computer, tobacco, geographical and other research on campus. The lectures and presentations are open to the public.

For more on Research Week and for symposium times, visit http://research.campuscms.ucmerced.edu/events.

Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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